By Marj Gallagher
The NFL’s efforts to improve player safety are a great step in the right direction.
But if the league wants certain penalized, “flagrant” hits to result in “immediate” ejections, as executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent suggested yesterday, it needs to tread carefully.
As former mayor and governor Ed Rendell might call it:
It’s the wussification of pro football!
So before it creates another complicated rule, the league at least should examine the nightmare that has been automatic ejections for targeting penalties in college football.
“The committee is exploring ways — including considering immediate ejections or suspensions — to take dangerous hits out of our game,” Vincent’s note read in full as part of a series of tweets that laid out the NFL Competition Committee’s agenda for next week’s annual league meeting in Phoenix. “We’ll communicate this to our coaches and players with video examples of flagrant hits that may result in ejection or suspension.”
NFL officials, of course, already have the option to eject players for illegal hits, and the league already can suspend players for such offenses. The rarity of those ejections and suspensions, though, apparently is not satisfactory.
Not that the NCAA was being proactive in 2008 (when it created the targeting penalty) and 2013 (when targeting began prompting ejections), but it’s ahead of the NFL on this one. And the college game already is having to amend its rule.
“As targeting ejections have doubled over three years,” writes Jon Solomon of CBS Sports, “the NCAA Football Rules Committee is looking at changing the replay standards so a targeting ejection only occurs if the penalty is confirmed. Currently, if replay doesn’t have enough evidence to confirm targeting but can’t rule it’s not targeting, the call on the field stands and the player gets ejected.”
The growing number of targeting ejections in college football — 144 in 2016 compared with 72 in 2014, per CBS Sports — is due to awareness and enabled officiating more so than it is to an increase in the frequency of illegal hits.
And in college football, the frequency of the ejections has not been the issue. It’s the inconsistency of the targeting rule’s interpretation (not to mention the harsh nature of the repercussions) that has people such as American football coaches association executive director Todd Berry fired up.
“There are certainly some (hits) that are deserving (of ejections),” Berry told CBS Sports. “But there are also some where the receiver is up in the air and the defensive player doesn’t launch, but he’s also changing his vertical plane. Where do you gauge hitting that person? That’s a tough thing to do instantaneously.
“Athletically, I don’t even know if they’re capable of doing that at the college level. Even the NFL guys can’t pull that off, either.”
That — the arbitrary nature of a human official’s call in the moment — is the tricky part. At least the NFL has acknowledged that intent often is impossible to judge. That’s the case even upon replay review.
Which is why, if the NFL does establish immediate ejections and suspensions, it better be crystal-clear not only on what types of hits warrant such punishment, but for Cam Newton’s sake, how liberally those penalties are to be enforced.
Forgive the pessimism, but the league already struggles with both.
Should varying degrees of brutality be punished by varying suspension lengths? Is a player who uses the crown of his helmet to make a hit more or less offensive than a player who, as the NCAA puts it, “makes forcible contact to the head or neck area” of a defenseless opponent?
There’s plenty of gray area for the NFL to fill with its colorful legislature.
Let’s just hope those colored pencils have been sharpened.